Tag Archives: paradigms

Policy in 500 Words: Peter Hall’s policy paradigms

Several 500 Word and 1000 Word (a, b, c) posts try to define and measure policy change.

Most studies agree that policymaking systems produce huge amounts of minor change and rare instances of radical change, but not how to explain these patterns. For example:

  • Debates on incrementalism questioned if radical change could be managed via non-radical steps.
  • Punctuated equilibrium theory describes policy change as a function of disproportionately low or high attention to problems, and akin to the frequency of earthquakes (a huge number of tiny changes, and more major changes than we would see in a ‘normal distribution’).

One of the most famous accounts of major policy change is by Peter Hall. ‘Policy paradigms’ help explain a tendency towards inertia, punctuated rarely by radical change (compare with discussions of path dependence and critical junctures).

A policy paradigm is a dominant and often taken-for-granted worldview (or collection of beliefs) about: policy goals, the nature of a policy problem, and the instruments to address it.

Paradigms can operate for long periods, subject to minimal challenge or defended successfully during events that call current policies into question. Adherence to a paradigm produces two ‘orders’ of change:

  • 1st order: frequent routine bureaucratic changes to instruments while maintaining policy goals.
  • 2nd order: less frequent, non-routine changes (or use of new instruments) while maintaining policy goals.

Radical and rare – 3rd order – policy change may only follow a crisis in which policymakers cannot solve a policy problem or explain why policy is failing. It prompts a reappraisal and rejection of the dominant paradigm, by a new government with new ways of thinking and/or a government rejecting current experts in favour of new ones. Hall’s example was of rapid paradigm shift in UK economic policy – from ‘Keynesianism’ to ‘Monetarism’ – within very few years.

Hall’s account prompted two different debates:

1. Some describe Hall’s case study as unusual.

Many scholars produced different phrases to describe a more likely pattern of (a) non-radical policy changes contributing to (b) long-term paradigm change and (c) institutional change, perhaps over decades. They include: ‘gradual change with transformative results’ and ‘punctuated evolution’ (see also 1000 Words: Evolution).

2. Some describe Hall’s case study as inaccurate.

This UK paradigm change did not actually happen. Instead, there was:

(a) A sudden and profound policy change that did not represent a paradigm shift (the UK experiment with Monetarism was short-lived).

(b) A series of less radical changes that produced paradigm change over decades: from Keynesianism to ‘neo-Keynesianism’, or from state intervention to neoliberalism (such as to foster economic growth via private rather than public borrowing and spending)

These debates connect strongly to issues in policy analysis, particularly if analysts seek transformative policy change to challenge unequal and unfair outcomes (such as in relation to racism or the climate crisis):

  1. Is paradigm change generally only possible over decades?
  2. How will we know if this transformation is actually taking place and here to stay (if even the best of us can be fooled by temporary developments)?

See also:

1. Beware the use of the word ‘evolution

2. This focus on the endurance of policy instrument change connects to studies of policy success (see Great Policy Successes).

3. Paul Cairney and Chris Weible (2015) ‘Comparing and Contrasting Peter Hall’s Paradigms and Ideas with the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ in (eds) M. Howlett and J. Hogan Policy Paradigms in Theory and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave) PDF

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Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity

In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
  • Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.

Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:

  • ‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
  • ‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.

I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.

Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.

Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:

A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.

In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.

Further reading:

For a longer discussion, see Fostering Evidence-informed Policy Making: Uncertainty Versus Ambiguity (PDF)

Or, if you fancy it in French: Favoriser l’élaboration de politiques publiques fondées sur des données probantes : incertitude versus ambiguïté (PDF)

Framing

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty

How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies

Here is the relevant opening section in UPP:

p234 UPP ambiguity

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Filed under 500 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling